Van Gogh: Sanity behind madness

by C.B. Liddell

In recent years there has been a sea change in the official cult surrounding the Post-Impressionist Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). For the masses he is still the archetypal “crazy artist”: razor blade in one hand, severed ear in the other, and a lovely picture of sunflowers on the easel behind him. But, for those who have invested heavily in his reputation — the main museums holding his art, such as the Kroller-Muller in the Netherlands and the Van Gogh Amsterdam — this particular mad artist card has been so overplayed, there are now attempts underway to present the artist in a saner light.

A collection of Van Gogh’s letters published earlier this year, compiled by scholars from the Van Gogh Museum, was prefaced with an essay “The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters” that debunked the notion of the man as an accursed genius whose art flowed directly from mental illness. The exhibition now at the National Art Center, Tokyo, “Van Gogh: The Adventure of Becoming an Artist,” largely sourced from these two museums, understandably follows suit.

There is an obvious attempt to back away from the image of the mad-eyed, tormented, syphilitic loner; or at least to place a firewall between those aspects of his personality and his art. Instead of the dramatic tale of someone driven to greatness and destruction by his demons, the exhibition focuses instead on the nitty-gritty of Van Gogh’s training and development, with his art presented as something that existed despite, rather than because of his, illness.

The first part of the show features plenty of sketches — some from life, some from prints by artists like Jean-Francois Millet, a major early influence. The laborious nature of the subject matter — the peasants and other working folk you would expect from Millet — serves to underline the hard effort that Van Gogh was also putting into his craft as he struggled to master form. Some of these works, such as “Head of a Fisherman with a Fringe of a Beard and a Sou’wester” (1883), show glints of his later talent, but most of them could be by any aspiring art student of the period.

From form the exhibition progresses to color, looking at early oil works, such as “Basket of Potatoes” (1885) and “Head of a Woman Wearing a White Cap” (1885), although “color” might be too generous a term for these paintings in somber earth tones, drowned in shadows. The latter painting shows Clasina Maria Hoornik, an alcoholic prostitute with whom Van Gogh lived for a time in The Hague.

These early paintings are still light years from the colorful style he is remembered for. But by demonstrating the steps that Van Gogh followed, the exhibition sends out the message that he was a studious, industrious and even slightly pedantic man, not some mercurial, manic genius. Also, by encountering his dull early works first, we embark on a trajectory that continues to climb as we progress to his brighter, later works.

The next section of the exhibition, “Modernism in Paris,” focuses on the two years Van Gogh spent in Paris from 1886 to 1888, and includes works by contemporaries, such as Claude Monet, Georges Seurat, and Toulouse Lautrec.

The point made by this is that rather than following some solipsistic inner urge, Van Gogh was instead keenly aware of his artistic milieu and closely in step with his contemporaries, just like a “normal” artist. This at least explains why his work at this point suddenly becomes much lighter and more colorful. Whatever the reason, the change from his darker early works is dramatic. When you encounter “Bank of the Seine” (1887) at the start of this section, it is like stepping into sunshine.

It is probably a sensible thing to re-balance the myth of Van Gogh in this way by pointing out the more prosaic elements of his art — his studies, influences, and environment. However, it is difficult to get over the nagging thought that this approach was also tailor-made for what was available, namely a large, mostly indifferent selection of works with few, if any, real masterpieces.

While the stars of this show, “The Sower” (1888), “Portrait of a Man” (1888) and “Irises” (1890), for example, are good paintings in their way and have even become fairly iconic by association with the legend, they are not his best work. The most impressive Van Goghs — “Starry Night” (1889), “Wheat Field with Cypresses” (1889), and the self-portrait from September 1889, where he hides his earless side — all have that element of willful distortion and heavily worked paint that hint at madness under the surface.

It would have been nice to see more of this Van Gogh, but, with a show that works so hard to lock up the myth of the mad artist, perhaps including such works would simply have loosened the bars again.

“”Van Gogh: The Adventure of Becoming an Artist” at The National Art Center, Tokyo runs till Dec. 20; admission ¥1,500; open daily 10 a.m.-8 p.m., closed Tue. For more information, visit www.nact.jp/english/index/html